Tag Archives: writing techniques


Sibilance is the recurrence of a hissing ‘s’ sound which can be effective in prose and poetry. It is sometimes referred to as sigmatism after the Greek letter sigma. Sibilance, as with all types of alliteration, draws emphasis where it is used. Note all the ‘s’ sounds in this extract from John Masefield’s Sea Fever:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

In this case, the sibilance gives a sense of flow, reflecting the movement of waves in the sea. It makes it very pleasing to read aloud – give it a try!

Shushing LibrarianSibilance is used commonly to draw people’s attention or admonish them (sssshhh!). Therefore, we know that it is an intense sound and can thus add this intensity to a piece of writing. A good example of this can be found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: ‘The smell of sweetest victory swirled in his nostrils, overpowering the stale smell of battered bodies that lay underfoot.’ Here it also helps to highlight the contrast of the ‘stale’ and ‘sweet’ smells, using this phonological pattern to encourage the reader to associate the two descriptions.

Can you think of any other good examples of sibilance? Tell me in the comments!

Please do like and share if this has been an edifying read. Thank you!


Filed under Poetry, Proofreading, Writing

Why I love ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’

Happy World Poetry Day! To celebrate, I’d like to discuss one of my favourite poems.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – W. B YeatsWorld Poetry Day

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The poem begins with stunning imagery: if he owned the most precious material imaginable, he would allow his love to walk upon it. Yeats uses the most exquisite symbolism to express the fragility and preciousness of dreams. Although the poem is essentially romantic, I believe it is applicable to any relationship where care and trust is needed. In touching first person, Yeats conveys the vulnerability of sharing one’s hopes, thoughts and aspirations. Second person is only introduced in the final lines with the warning imperative to ‘tread softly’, to be mindful of feelings.

I love its simplicity. Only one word has more than two syllables. The repeated words reinforce his theme. The whole poem could almost be told in those recurrent words: ‘cloths’, ‘light’, ‘dreams’, ‘feet’. The lyrical internal rhymes ‘night and light and the half-light’ are swept along with an insistent conjunction, ‘and’. Word choice throughout is precise: ‘Enwrought’ begins a line brilliantly. Poetic devices are used gently with great subtlety and skill. I like the way it starts with grand imagery and becomes more humble and personal.

To me, this is writing at its best: beautiful words, ordered with care to create a universal, timeless and moving poem.

What’s your favourite poem? Please tell me about it in the comments!

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Don’t Panic! Just Choose Your Words Carefully

“Pick your words with care” Ford Prefect warns Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I  think that’s great advice for all writers. When you’re writing, it can be very easy to lose yourself in your fantastic plot. Your characters take on a life of their own and you’reGuide away, giving a narrative account of the thrilling happenings in their lives. Unfortunately, this can mean that word choice suffers. In the best works of literature, every word is working hard to create a precise image, an exact impression on the reader. Chilean author Isabel Allende meticulously goes through every word of English translations of her novels, making sure that they are true to her original meaning.

One of the worst consequences of failure to focus on word choice is repetition. Repeated words indicate a lack of craft to the reader; they can infer a lack of originality. ‘Said’ is a regular issue. The word ‘said’ is, in fact, saying very little. Usually the preceding or following text is in speech marks, so the reader is already fully aware that it is being ‘said’ so tell them something they don’t know! What is that character’s tone or expression? How has what they’ve shared affected the atmosphere? Consider this example from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.


Choosing different verbs and describing reactions can give vigour and immediacy to a text. Verb choice is worth getting right and can do a great deal for characterisation and mood. Try to think exactly how your characters each walk, talk and move – what habits do they have? We can tell a lot about the impetuous and larger than life character that is Zaphod Beeblebrox  from the verbs Adams uses to describe his speech: spat, demanded, muttered, seethed, bawled. These all appear on one double page. Compare this to the nervy Arthur Dent: gibbered, asked, whispered, protested, goggled. 

If you see a word repeated often in your text, particularly close together, the first thing to do is reach for the thesaurus. Every writer should have a quality thesaurus. Looking up ‘synonyms’ on Word is okay, but a  thesaurus will provide a more thorough list and give options categorised under multiple possible meanings. A good edition will also provide a sentence for context of trickier words. If you’re considering using a word that you’re not completely familiar with, check it in a dictionary to make sure it means exactly what you intend it to. Every writer should also have a quality dictionary.

A varied vocabulary gives you greater nuance of meaning, enriching your writing to give the reader a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Because of our history, the English language has more synonyms than any other language. Writers, you have a wealth of options from which to choose! Standard English adults have a vocabulary  of around 20,000 words – are you using yours to its full potential?

By the way, if you haven’t already, do read some Douglas Adams!

The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Thanks for reading! I’m always fascinated to know your thoughts and do please like and share!

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Filed under Common Errors, Writing, Writing Advice

Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

 The subtitle sums it up beautifully: ‘Twenty acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do.’ The introduction wittily reframes the question of why so many people write and offers famous solutions, including George Orwell’s suggestions: 1, sheer egoism; 2, aesthetic enthusiasm; 3, historical impulse; 4, political purpose. I think Terry Tempest Williams’ answer is an excellent one too, ‘I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.’

A summary of the author’s work and a table of ‘vitals’ introduce each section; did you know that Isabel Allende’s father was the first cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or that Jodi Picoult wrote Wonder Woman for DC in 2007?  Isabel Allende is the first to share her reasons and methods. She writes lyrically about the trials and successes of her career and finishes with this: ‘Language: that’s what matters to me. Telling a story to create an emotion, a tension, a rhythm – that it what matters to me.’ I also found myself pondering one line of her advice long after reading it: ‘a story should feel like a conversation…not a lecture.’

The writing is often introspective, but intelligent and open; everyone has had different crises, panics, rewrites, rejections and doubts: though all of them have ultimately succeeded. Each section ends with words of wisdom for writers. There are so many good ideas in this: read at the level at which you want to write; bypass publishers, put it out yourself; adopt an international viewpoint; push for original ways of describing things; pick ordinary moments and magnify them.

David Baldacci’s description of the profession is delightful: ‘I’m paid to daydream.’ Basically, I could spend this entire review quoting line after line from this book because it is all crafted by such accomplished writers. Armistead Maupin warmly remembers an encouraging teacher; Susan Orleans considers the awkwardness of calling oneself an ‘artist’. Almost every word in it feels like it is in its right place. That said, I did skip the Jane Smiley chapter – I was made to write one too many essays on A Thousand Acres and I’m keeping a promise I made to my teenage self that I needn’t read her again.

Many of the pieces have strong similarities, so it is more a book to dip into than to read all at once. There is a good mix of common issues, idiosyncrasies and practical concerns. The writers answer the question of why they write with brilliant honesty (from ‘the money’ to ‘I can’t think what else I’d do’) though one idea seems to pervade for the majority: something in them knows that they must write. They simply have no choice.

So, now I’m curious: why do you write? Comments please!

It’s an interesting book for writers and others interested in the craft. It’s also a worthwhile purchase: part of the profits goes to 826 National, a youth literacy organisation. Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.


Filed under books, Reviews

Using Commas Like a Winner

I’m generally on board when it comes to Ernest Hemingway: I like the books; I like the beard; I like that he uses commas sparingly. Though I do think the last two are rather hard to pull off for anyone other than the great EH.  One does need to pause for breath now and again and, if you follow the rules, well placed commas can be an asset to your writing. Here’s how to use them:

1. To separate items in a list. 

For example, the terminator’s Christmas list: ‘Clothes, boots, motorcycle.’

2. To put a section of the sentence in parenthesis.

‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous catchphrase, the one from The Terminator, hopefully doesn’t apply to his political career.’

3. To indicate divisions between clauses in  a complex sentence. 

‘Arnie might, if given the funds and opportunity, make a sequel to Total Recall, focussing on his character’s declining short term memory: Partial Recall.’

4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it a smoother read. 

‘Released in 1990, Kindergarten Cop is an indisputable triumph of the genre.’

5. To introduce or end direct speech. 

‘Your clothes,’ he demanded, ‘give them to me, now!’

Generally, try reading your sentence out loud to see where the pauses naturally fall. Then decide, based on the guidelines, whether a comma would fit there. Essentially, a part of your sentence must be a complete clause. If it isn’t, you’ve used too many commas!

It is important to get them right: a misplaced comma can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. See seals.

In terms of Oxford commas (commas before ‘and’ in a list), the convention is not to use them in British English unless their omission could cause the meaning to be misinterpreted. See below.

In creative writing, like Ernest Hemingway’s, commas can be omitted for effect to create a faster pace, but make sure that the sense of the phrase is preserved.

It’s been said that when Joseph Conrad emerged from his study one midday after a morning of writing, his wife asked what he had done. He said,  ‘I took out a comma,’  She asked the same question that evening after several hours’ more work. He said, ‘I put back the comma.’ The moral is: commas matter.

If you would like any help putting yours in the right places, do get in touch!


Filed under Proofreading

Active and Passive Voice

Choosing to use the active or passive voice can change the tone and emphasis of a sentence considerably. Active is usually more direct.

When using the active voice, the noun relates to the verb directly:

Stop! Grammar Time

‘MC Hammer wore incredible trousers.’

In the passive voice, the subject follows the object:

‘Incredible trousers were worn by MC Hammer.’

The active voice is used far more commonly in creative and journalistic writing. The passive voice is often used in business materials and formal writing. Also, the passive voice can be useful in creative writing if the writer is making a point of distance or detachment between the subject and the object or the action. Additionally, it can be used to avoid repetition of ‘I’ at the beginning of sentences.


Filed under Proofreading, Writing Advice

Semicolons Are Your Friends: A Quick Guide on How to Use Them

As a proofreader, I come upon semicolon issues in almost every piece of work I read. They are often seen as difficult and are frequently mis-used instead of commas or colons, or left out completely; some people are reluctant to use them for anything other than winking emoticons.  I remembering taking a while to grasp their uses when I was taught. But why do people struggle with them so? Perhaps they just aren’t taught well at school (stick that in your baccalaureate, Gove). What ever the reason, there are two simple rules that anyone can learn: 

1.  Semicolons are used to mark a break in a sentence, usually where both halves of the sentence could stand as sentences in their own right. You use a semicolon instead of a full stop to indicate that the points are closely linked.  This could mean that the second half explains or expands on the first, but semicolons should also be used when the two factors are directly contrasted. 

‘He loved the video of a kitten playing the piano on YouTube;  she preferred recordings of Glee-themed flash mobs.’

It would also be technically correct in this instance to use a full stop; the relationship between the two is more neatly expressed using a semicolon.

Another example: if I were to write out the lyrics to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, it would look like this: 

‘You shoot me down, but I won’t fall; I am titanium.’ 

You could use a full stop in between, but a semicolon nicely demonstrates the causality between the two assertions.

2. Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a list where they consist of more than one word. The list should be introduced with a colon and the items separated by semicolons.

‘He enjoyed a variety of other videos: the panda falling out of a hammock; squirrels spinning like whirligigs on bird-feeders or washing lines; that dog that does the lambada; and anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch on a day off.’  

That’s it; there are just two uses. You can do it!

Have a go at punctuating these: 

‘All passengers have been informed that they must not carry sharp objects that random spot-checks can be expected that longer than usual delays are possible’

‘She couldn’t dance in her favourite ballroom it was being renovated’

Let me know how you get on in the comments! 


Filed under Proofreading, Writing Advice

At the end of the day, when can you use a cliché?

Clichés are overused, stereotyped expressions that have lost their force and impact.  If I come across a cliché in an otherwise original and well-written piece of work, I find that it can jar. It just reminds me of awkward post-match interviews and phatic communion on public transport. The overuse of one of these phrases causes the sentiment to be lost as they can seem impersonal and insincere. Additionally, they can indicate a lack of vocabulary or careful thought and are not always exactly appropriate. They come in five main types:

As sick as John Cleese’s Parrot.

1. Clichés can take the form of similes, for example, ‘sick as a parrot’ or ‘as bold as brass’. I would recommend avoiding these in your writing because they are so well-used.

2. They can also be metaphors: ‘the long arm of the law’; ‘a baptism of fire’ and ‘he’s got an ace up his sleeve’.

3. Some proverbs and quotations have become clichés from overuse, including, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and ‘the blind leading the blind’.

4. Phrases and idioms can also become perhaps too widely repeated: ‘last but not least’, ‘age before beauty’ and ‘adding insult to injury’.

5. Also beware of excessive use of common adjective-noun pairings, for example, ‘timeless classic’, ‘burning question’ and ‘graphic description’.

They can be an effective device when used in particular ways. Most obviously, a well-used cliché can create a familiar, shared image that your readers can relate to, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ for example. They can also be used in direct speech; which clichés they use can tell the reader a lot about a character.

There’s a section in Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush where clichés are used cleverly as the characters of Saint and Kim, two smoking, swearing fifteen year olds ironically observe of younger teens, ‘Kids today, eh?’ and make each other laugh by employing adopted phrases such as ‘rites of passage’ and ‘when you need me, call me!’.

Clichés can be great for humour. I personally enjoy it when the literal meaning makes its metaphorical use nonsensical: ‘If they make bungee jumping illegal, they’ll drive it underground’. Another favourite of mine is ‘so I turned around and said to him’; when used repeatedly, I can’t help but imagine the speaker pirouetting continually!

A lot of jokes are based on subverting the expected wording to a cliché with word play. A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion! When you’ve seen one shopping centre, you’ve seen a mall!

If you’re unsure whether to use a cliché, I recommend instead coming up with your own original metaphor or simile for the phenomenon. By creating a new, accurate expression you will give the reader a satisfying and delightful feeling of recognition. Having the imagination and vocabulary to describe something in an original, yet instantly relatable way is a great skill to develop as an author.

I’ll leave you on a final joke: Why did the chilly Inuits’ boat sink when they lit a fire in it? Because you can’t have your kayak and heat it too!


Filed under Writing Advice

All’s Well That Ends Well: Advice For Writers

It is always difficult deciding how to conclude what you’ve written; what final impression do you want to leave the reader with? Is there a message or a lesson that you want them to take away? In non-fiction writing in particular, many writers find it difficult to know when and how to stop.

 In terms of biography or autobiography, the rules are very similar to those in fiction, even though it is rather more difficult to choose an ‘ending’ point in real life. Essentially, you are telling a story. This means that the ending should resolve the main conflict that you have presented: you need to say what resulted from the key plot points or incidents. Although you don’t have to entirely resolve everything else you’ve mentioned, it’s better if you at least refer to any ongoing sub plots to give a sense of completion.

A good example of a satisfying ending can be found in Dave Gorman vs. The Rest of The World, a witty and cheerful book, I highly recommend it. This is Dave Gorman’s autobiographical account of challenging anyone and everyone to play a huge variety of games of their choosing. The ending refers back to the climax of the book as the writer overcomes a bad experience wherein he met a stranger who became violent. The last lines describe how he persuaded himself to persevere with the game-playing by remembering all the positive encounters he had had with people and didn’t allow himself to change his outlook irrevocably. Through the use of rhetorical questions, short paragraphs and truncated sentences, the reader is drawn in to Gorman’s internal monologue. By finishing on a positive note, he’s created a sort of happy moral to the story that leaves the reader with a smile.

The last line mirrors the opening of the book: ‘Do you play any games? Real life, not computer games. Would you like a game?’ This direct repetition is a lovely device that almost always makes for a satisfying ending. It’s as if it is bookending the text, or the main story is the sandwich filling and these two identical slices of bread hold it together. The same effect can be created by referring to the same event at the start and end of a text, or even just by using similar lexical choices a more subtle, almost subconscious, link can be made. By asking a direct question, Dave Gorman achieves the delicate balance of a conclusive, yet open ending, engaging the reader.

 Non-fiction texts of other genres often use similar techniques, referring back to a quotation or argument used at the start is a pleasing way to round off a text. In the sort of popular non-fiction which provides academic arguments or explanations at an accessible level, the ending must summarise the main points of the text and demonstrate the how the argument was built in order to restate it with finality and gravitas. In this sense it is similar to an essay. It is a justification of your thesis or world view, as demonstrated in Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters: ‘This book has identified a challenge facing all democracies. The ideals of democracy are valued and supported by most citizens, however, the practice of democratic politics is currently a massive turn-off.’

 Importantly, he also recognises arguments to the contrary and potential weaknesses in his text and strongly refutes them using evidence. He defines his view of politics and its role in society. In his final paragraph he directly answers his title. Why does politics matter? ‘Politics matters because it, too, is an ingredient in what is needed for a good life.’ Using words from the title is one of my favourite techniques for rounding something off satisfactorily. I call it the Love Actually Device, because that’s one of the films where one of the characters almost manages to un-ironically work the title of the film into the dialogue. I love it when they say the title of the film in the film. It makes me want to punch the air with joy. The same applies to books and essays.

 A bit of parallel phrasing finishes off Gerry Stoker’s book beautifully, ‘Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the twentieth century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the twenty-first.’ Glorious. 

 Basically, think about the mood you want to leave the reader in. Both these texts, though very different, finish with a common theme of hope for the future. Finishing on a positive note will leave the reader well disposed to your story or argument. Consider: why did you write this account? What do you want the reader to know? Make sure that your point is clearly stated, give the reader something to ponder on and leave a lasting impression.

 Get someone else to read it (friends, family, or a professional proofreader) and see what impression they were left with. If all else fails, just write in large, definitive lettering…THE END.

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Show and Tell: Advice for Writers

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice often given to writers, but it’s a difficult balance to strike. How do you let your readers know what’s happening if you don’t tell them? It really means that you should demonstrate information through plot, dialogue and other literary techniques, rather than stating a series of facts. This is the difference between saying, ‘Roger was angry when he got home,’ and ‘Roger stormed in, slamming the door behind him.’ The former version provides the necessary information, but the latter is arguably more engaging as it illustrates the emotion, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion.

Showing, rather than telling, can also be instrumental in moving the plot forward. Rather than spending time describing characters, settings and events separately, they could all, for example, be introduced in a section of dialogue. This can show how the characters talk, how they feel about situations and keep the momentum of the story going. For example:

‘Please,’ said Ryan, proffering the spare scooter helmet. ‘’Simportant. Need to talk to you. Ain’t much time left.’

            ‘Why?’ Snapped Clara, ‘You goin’ some place?’

            ‘You and me both,’ murmured Ryan. ‘The right place, ’opefully.’

In this extract from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, we get a sense of the character’s attitudes, accents and relationship. By showing, the author brings the reader right into the moment; a sense of urgency is created in the dialogue. I definitely recommend this book, by the way, it’s a really good read.

There is such a thing, however, as too much showing and not enough telling. In Philip Roth’s Deception, for example, the story is told only through unattributed dialogue. The lack of authorial voice  to explain who is speaking, where they are, their relationships to each other and, frankly, why the reader should care, means that even the kindest reviewers euphemistically labelled it ‘challenging’.

Telling can ensure that key information has been made obvious to the reader. To illustrate this:

Bert White was a frail-looking, weedy, pale-faced boy, fifteen years of age and about four feet nine inches in     height…He was a pitiable spectacle of neglect and wretchedness…

Robert Tressel, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, tells the reader about Bert’s physical appearance and goes on to describe the other characters in similar detail. This helps the reader to get a sense of the character; they can see what the author thinks is important for them to observe. Tressel wrote the novel to draw attention to the problem of poverty; telling allowed him to directly express the state of people he encountered and describe the conditions he experienced truthfully.

Telling can also clarify plot points. If you want the reader to know about something that happened in the past, for example, it might be more straight-forward to just tell them rather than spending time in flashbacks or long reminiscences.

Adopting the mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ will keep your stories dynamic and interesting. Avoiding a distractingly dominant authorial voice allows the reader to become immersed in the world you are creating. Nevertheless, ensure that you convey necessary information and vital plot points; enough, at least, to sign-post your reader towards what you want to show them. Now let’s see if Roger’s calmed down…

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